Recognizing human creativity

Can you tell the difference between something created by a computer and something created by a human? 

This question is increasingly put to the test these days, with the prevalence of artificial intelligence (AI) rising quickly, and AI-generated pictures and text being shared all around us. 

Last weekend, the same question was put to the test in an especially chaotic and hilarious way thanks to the Actors' Mission's 24 Hour Page to Stage: Man vs. Machine event, which I was insane enough to participate in as both a writer and actor.

The idea behind the event was to not only write, produce, and perform brand new one act plays within 24 hours, but this year to add in a twist. One of the plays would be written by AI, and the audience would have to see if they could tell which one it was.

Spoiler alert - they couldn't tell.

Even with the assistance of ChatGPT for writing one of the scripts, getting four new plays on stage in that short of time is chaotic, especially with a group of a dozen people who are all doubling up on their roles as writers, actors, and directors. We met at the Broadway Theater in Rock Springs at 6 p.m. on Friday. The writers had about six hours to come up with a script for a 15-20 minute play. We all got together at 1:30 a.m. for the first read-through of all the scripts. Through the night, actors memorized their lines (and tried to snag an hour or two of sleep). All day Saturday was spent rehearsing, right up until the moment the show began at 7 p.m.

The first play was about a future world where laws struggle to define what makes someone a "person," and whether they have the right to create art. The second play was about a less-distant future where people try to live their daily lives while being surrounded by disasters and revolutions. The third play was about a family connecting after a funeral. The fourth play was about a hat-wearing society getting a new leader in the form of a water cooler.

At the end, we all came on stage for our curtain call, then took a moment to ask the audience to vote for which play they thought was written by the AI. The first play only got two votes, and the last three plays got about half a dozen votes each, so the audience was fairly evenly split in having no idea.

I was honestly shocked by this.

I wish I could have talked to the audience members about the logic behind their choices. If I'd had time (and hadn't been ready to collapse from exhaustion), I might have made more of an effort to do so. I'm still curious and trying to think through what their reasoning might have been. Did the most absurd play seem too absurd? Did the most realistic, human play seem too normal? Did the plays that directly mentioned robots and AI seem too direct?

Whatever the reasoning was, I find it fascinating, and a little scary, that the answer wasn't more obvious. As a human creator who idealistically hoped that the creativity and depth and humanity behind art would be more apparent, I'm a little concerned. To be clear, I truly believe the art produced by humans is inherently better than the art produced by AI. What scares me is that most people won't be able to tell the difference, or won't see enough of a difference to care.

Something that is interesting to consider is the fact that AI doesn't create in a vacuum. First, it can be argued that it is a glorified plagiarism machine, studying and learning from the creations that came from humans first in order to "create" on its own. Also, it does what it's told (for now - until we get to "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."). For our purposes, we had two humans guiding the AI to create a script, giving it specific prompts that had some amount of influence over the end result. We also had a human director and human actors who made very specific (and hilarious) decisions about how the script was presented. So even the machine-generated play had a lot of human influence. 

It can also be pointed out that humans don't create in a vacuum either. We're all influenced by things that have come before us. Even in my own script, I specifically referenced a number of other stories and series, and I was directly and indirectly influenced by several others. 

Considering the impact of AI on art on creativity brings up a lot of interesting discussions about creativity itself. It will be interesting to see where it goes as things continue to progress. But I do think, for now, that humans still give a very specific spirit to the art that they create, and that needs to be recognized and valued and celebrated. 

If you want to watch the plays and guess which one is AI for yourself, you can watch the livestream on YouTube under the title "Actors' Mission Page to Stage in 24 Hours" on Erik Hamm's channel.


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